Opinion | Cancel Culture: Are We Overreacting?

To the Editor:

Re “Middle-Aged Panic About Cancel Culture,” by Michelle Goldberg (column, Sept. 21):

I disagree that growing criticism of the so-called cancel culture on U.S. campuses is a product of middle-aged sensitivities that are overblown and histrionic. Ms. Goldberg may not understand how destructive campus pressures for ideological uniformity really are and the enormous chilling effect on nonconforming faculty and students.

I taught courses in constitutional law and the First Amendment on a university campus for over 30 years and was continually on guard to make sure that my sometimes unorthodox liberal views did not get me into trouble with other faculty members. And I also helped students when their unorthodox views got them into trouble.

For example, when the school’s Federalist Society chapter got itself into hot water for admittedly overzealous protesting of some of the activities of gay rights and African American student groups, there was a faculty effort to censure it, even though everything that was said was protected by the First Amendment. When I resisted this effort, a colleague threatened to have me labeled a racist at my school unless I agreed to join the censure effort. Fortunately, his effort failed.

Following some of my constitutional law classes on leading affirmative action cases, conservative students privately told me that they disagreed with the reasoning of some of the cases but would not speak out in class for fear of being labeled a racist.

Both faculty and students who ignore the pressure for ideological conformity do so at their own peril — and they know it.

David Goldberger
Silver Spring, Md.

To the Editor:

So Michelle Goldberg thinks the Netflix satire “The Chair” doesn’t really reflect the cancel culture on college campuses? I assure her that it does — people are being unceremoniously shamed and thrown out of their positions not only at colleges, but also in other settings: government, nonprofits, businesses.

Traditionally liberals have called for free expression of various points of view, allowing people to deliberate, make mistakes, correct observations and conclusions. This open exchange has largely been silenced as many thinkers, writers and artists self-censor, fearing the consequences of a misstep or an awkward word. Individual lives are being destroyed, and free exchange of ideas threatened.

Ironically, the illiberal left has much in common with far-right populist movements: Both are composed of ideologues who moralize, condemn and purge, all in the name of some greater good. Deliver me, please, from all those who are sure they have a lock on the truth!

Marilyn Sewell
Portland, Ore.

To the Editor:

Michelle Goldberg is right: It’s absurd to compare several hundred episodes of intolerance on our campuses to the horrors of Stalinism or the Cultural Revolution. But she misses the heart of the story, which is the fear that such events spawn. Large swaths of students and faculty report that they are afraid to express their opinions, in class and outside of it. And that makes it harder for us to learn from one another, which is why we gather at universities in the first place.

Ms. Goldberg also correctly identifies the biggest threat to free exchange right now: Republican-sponsored laws to restrict classroom discussions around race. But the rest of us can’t fight that movement if we’re promoting our own culture of censorship. We need to get our own free-speech house in order, or bad actors will impose an even worse one on us.

Jonathan Zimmerman
The writer is a professor of education and history at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of “Campus Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know.”

To the Editor:

I have a 35-year-old daughter who lives in Oakland, Calif. I am an East Coast lefty liberal and am more politically active than my daughter, whose political leanings are only slightly left of mine. But when she comes to visit I have to watch what I say because of the stubborn arguments that likely ensue if I happen to make a casual or joking remark that she considers politically incorrect or “triggering.” It does make me sad, as well as mad.

I’m a big fan of Michelle Goldberg, but when I read that she believes that it would be very unlikely for someone to get fired over something like a Nazi salute, I was reminded of the incident described in a 1999 Washington Post story about David Howard, an aide to D.C.’s mayor, who was forced to resign (though later rehired) because of correctly using the word “niggardly” (meaning “stingy”), and then being accused of racism.

Purity censoring needs to be carefully watched, and reined in, from all sides, especially where common sense and humor may be victims.

Mary Emerson
Newport, R.I.

To the Editor:

Cancel culture in the academy is not just harming individuals but gutting whole academic fields. Departments are refused needed faculty, tenure is denied, grants are unavailable, brilliant graduates are unable to find jobs. Curriculums are forced on departments, eliminating subjects and viewpoints, cheating students of a diverse knowledge of a complex world.

Not teaching the history of racial injustice is yet another deprivation of knowledge. The horrors of racism must be taught, along with the rest of our history; students need to know the whole messy story. Zealots on both sides of the spectrum are refusing to confront and teach the complexities of the world. We are surrounded by shades of gray. Acknowledging this might just help us to lower our voices, listen and even learn from one another.

Joel Feigin
Goleta, Calif.
The writer is professor emeritus of music composition at the University of California Santa Barbara.

To the Editor:

Michelle Goldberg argues that older liberals complaining about cancel culture are upset because they used to be cool young lefties and now they aren’t. There is surely some truth to this. At least at universities, however, concerns about free speech aren’t confined to just this group.

For instance, in a recent survey of Harvard’s Division of Science, only 52 percent of graduate students reported feeling “comfort disagreeing with majority opinion,” the lowest percentage of any group in the survey. This is deeply worrying, since, for scientists, dissent is a core job responsibility. If today’s scientists-in-training remain so apprehensive about expressing unpopular opinions, tomorrow’s scientific leaders will be less honest and less effective.

Maybe this isn’t a “political emergency,” but it isn’t just a societywide midlife crisis either.

Colm P. Kelleher
Cambridge, Mass.
The writer is a postdoctoral researcher at Harvard’s Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology.

To the Editor:

There are alarming numbers of incidents of Jewish students, especially Jewish students who support Israel, being “canceled” — campaigns of harassment, ousters or preventing Jewish students from serving on student government positions. In addition, many thousands of professors, administrators, students and alumni have signed letters essentially saying Zionism has no place on their campus.

Cancel culture is toxic and alarming.

Beth Levine
Rockville, Md.

Michelle Goldberg Responds

We introduce a new feature in which our Opinion writers will occasionally respond to letters from readers.

I was gratified by how many people responded to this column, but some of the responses made me realize that I didn’t communicate as precisely as I’d wished. To be clear: The middle-aged sadness I referred to is very much my own. I’m nostalgic for the more freewheeling intellectual culture in which I grew up, even though I think our culture’s greater sensitivity to racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination is an unalloyed good. I empathize with Mary Emerson, who feels as if she has to tiptoe around her own daughter. Many people I know feel similarly inhibited around people younger than they are.

What I tried to do in that column was to tease apart the difference between that very real sense of loss and the apocalyptic political analysis that sometimes flows from it. What some readers describe, it seems to me, is simple peer pressure. David Goldberger writes about an effort to censure a Federalist Society chapter, but acknowledges that it failed. Still, he writes, conservative students are hesitant to speak out in class for fear of being labeled racist. But the First Amendment can’t protect people from interpersonal consequences for unpopular speech; calling someone a racist may or may not be fair, but it’s also free speech.

I understand that a lot of people feel that our culture lacks patience and grace, and that people are too quick to condemn others’ character based on dissenting opinions. I often feel like that myself. But again, that’s the result of a generational shift in social norms, not a coercive political program. There’s enough dissatisfaction with the state of our intellectual culture that I suspect it will change, but that will require people to risk ostracism or mockery for saying things that they think are true. Ultimately I think people may be less likely to take those risks if the stakes are exaggerated, as they often are.

— Michelle Goldberg

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